WASHINGTON — The attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans has dealt the Central Intelligence Agency a major setback in its intelligence-gathering efforts at a time of increasing instability in the North African nation.
Among the more than two dozen American personnel evacuated from the city after the assault on the American mission and a nearby annex were about a dozen CIA operatives and contractors, who played a crucial role in conducting surveillance and collecting information on an array of armed militant groups in and around the city.
“It’s a catastrophic intelligence loss,” said one U.S. official who has served in Libya and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the FBI is still investigating the attack. “We got our eyes poked out.”
The CIA’s surveillance targets in Benghazi and eastern Libya include Ansar al-Sharia, a militia that some have blamed for the attack, as well as suspected members of al-Qaida’s affiliate in North Africa, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.
Eastern Libya is also being buffeted by strong crosscurrents that intelligence operatives are trying to monitor closely. The killing of Stevens has ignited public anger against the militias, underscored Friday when thousands of Libyans took to the streets of Benghazi to demand that the groups be disarmed. The makeup of militias varies widely; some are moderate, while others are ultraconservative Islamists known as Salafis and still others are loyalists from the government of Moammar Gadhafi, the deposed Libyan leader.
“The region’s deeply entrenched Salafi community is undergoing significant upheaval, with debate raging between a current that is amenable to political integration and a more militant strand that opposes democracy,” Frederic Wehrey, a senior policy analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace who closely follows Libya and visited there recently, wrote in a paper this month, “The Struggle for Security in Eastern Libya.”
American intelligence operatives also assisted State Department contractors and Libyan officials in tracking shoulder-fired missiles taken from the former arsenals of Gadhafi’s forces; they aided in efforts to secure Libya’s chemical weapons stockpiles; and they helped train Libya’s new intelligence service, officials said.
Senior U.S. officials acknowledged the intelligence setback, but insisted that information was still being collected using a variety of informants on the ground, systems that intercept electronic communications like cellphone conversations, and satellite imagery.
Spokesmen for the State Department and the White House declined to comment on the matter Sunday.
Within months of the start of Libyan revolution in February 2011, the CIA began building a meaningful but covert presence in Benghazi, a locus of the rebel efforts to oust the government of Gadhafi.